The 2019-20 NHL season has been one for the ages. The season began on October 2nd, 2019, was suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic on March 12th, 2020, and then resumed at two bubble locations (Edmonton, Alberta and Toronto, Ontario) on August 1st.
At several points during the suspension and early bubble play, the odds of a team hoisting the Stanley Cup this season seemed highly unlikely. Fortunately for fans and players alike, the bubble has been a success. Players have stayed healthy, games have been entertaining, and the playoffs have actually seemed kind of normal.
Despite all the work needed to get to this point, the season has now finally reached its climax: the Stanley Cup Final.
The championship round features two deprived franchises vying to lift Lord Stanley’s Cup for the first time in several years. The gritty, defensive-minded Dallas Stars will represent the Western Conference for the first time since 2000 with their last championship occurring one year prior in 1999. They face-off against the Eastern Conference champion Tampa Bay Lightning, who recently made the Cup Final in 2015, but have not won it all since 2004.
If the previous rounds were any indication, this could be one of the most entertaining Stanley Cup Finals in recent memory. Two desperate teams looking to win perhaps the most difficult championship in the most tumultuous season in NHL history should provide plenty of excitement.
Let’s take a look at how the Stars and Lightning got to this point and predict which team will emerge victorious.
How They Got Here
Pre-Pandemic: 37-24-8 (4th in the West)
Round-Robin: 3rd in the West at 1-2 (Lost to Vegas 5-3 and Colorado 4-0; Defeated St. Louis 2-1)
Quarterfinals: Defeated No. 6 Calgary Flames 4-2
Semi-Finals: Defeated No. 2 Colorado Avalanche 4-3
Conference Finals: Defeated No. 1 Vegas Golden Knights 4-1
Tampa Bay Lightning
Pre-Pandemic: 43-21-6 (2nd in the East)
Round-Robin: 2nd in the East at 2-1 (Defeated Washington 3-2 and Boston 3-2; Lost to Philadelphia 4-1)
Quarterfinals: Defeated No. 7 Columbus Blue Jackets 4-1
Semi-Finals: Defeated No. 4 Boston Bruins 4-1
Conference Finals: Defeated No. 6 New York Islanders 4-2
The Stars were the second best defensive team in the NHL for the regular season and have not slowed down in the playoffs, despite starting goaltender Ben Bishop being injured for almost every game. In Bishop’s absence, 34-year old journeyman Anton Khudobin has shone for the first time in his 11 season career. Dobby has a .921 save percentage and a 2.13 goals-against average in the bubble, including a .950 save percentage in the conference finals against Vegas. Although Khudobin has never been this good for this long before, he is peaking at the perfect time and there should be no doubt that he can continue this stellar play into the Cup Final.
Khudobin is not doing it all by himself, however, as Miro Heiskanen and John Klingberg lead a strong defensemen unit. Each adds offense to go along with their strong defensive play as well. Heiskanen has been especially impressive, posting 22 points in 21 games prior to the Final.
Since the defense was expected to be good in the playoffs, the real story has been the offensive resurgence for the Stars. They have continued to have a top-five power play unit and their stars have started to awaken. Tyler Seguin has just two goals, but Jamie Benn is playing extremely well with 18 points and has steadily improved throughout the postseason.
Along with Seguin and Benn, Dallas has solid forward depth with Joe Pavelski, Alexander Radulov, Denis Gurianov, Roope Hintz, and Joel Kiviranta. Pavelski and Gurianov are the most dangerous as each has nine goals.
On the other side of the ice, the Lightning have perhaps the most talented roster in the NHL and match the Stars in almost every area. In net, Tampa has Andrei Vasilevsky, who has posted a .931 save percentage and 1.82 goal-against average. Vasilevsky may be the only goalie that has been better than Khudobin in the bubble.
They may not be as great defensively as the Stars, but the Lightning still boast one of the best units in the league. Victor Hedman has been a workhorse for Tampa Bay, averaging a whopping 26:31 of ice time per game. Hedman has added nine goals (the most by a defenseman in the playoffs since 1994) while also providing leadership in captain Steven Stamkos’ absence.
Ryan McDonagh is a more than capable sidekick to Hedman as well. Tampa’s defense has improved in the bubble by allowing almost a goal less than they did in the regular season (2.46 GAA to 1.66 GAA).
Offensively, Ondrej Palat, Brayden Point, and Nikita Kucherov are perhaps the best line in the NHL. They have a combined 21 goals and dominate the opposing defense every time they are on the ice together. Similar to Dallas, Tampa Bay has incredible forward depth with Blake Coleman, Anthony Cirelli, Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn, Patrick Maroon, Barclay Goodrow, and Yanni Gourde all contributing. They each have added scoring while also being physical, something the Lightning have lacked in their previous postseason disappointments.
After suffering arguably the most devastating playoff defeat in NHL history last season at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Lightning have clearly been on a mission throughout the bubble. Even without Stamkos, their offense has continued to thrive and their defense has improved. Tampa Bay has always had the talent, but now are finally showing the heart needed to win it all.
However, there is something special about these Stars. They were counted out in every series and still managed to beat two of the top three teams in the league (Vegas and Colorado). Khudobin, Heiskanen, and Benn have proven to be more than capable of leading a motivated yet talented group to another upset victory.
Regardless of who wins the series, it is going to be close and go the full seven games. The Stars will have just enough to slow down the high-powered Lightning and hoist the Stanley Cup for the first time this century.
Series Prediction: Dallas Stars- 4 games to 3
Conn Smythe Trophy Winner: Anton Khudobin
Update: Lightning are up winning the series 2-1 with game four tomorrow, Friday 25, at 8:00 p.m. on CBS.